The first group of this year’s Euros features hosts and tournament favourites France, Romania, Switzerland and minnows Albania
Les Blues are currently breeding a new generation of youngsters who want to bring back the glory days of French football and turn them into a football powerhouse once again. France have not won a major tournament since their Euro 2000 success 16 years ago. Didier Deschamps side however, have been tipped to go all the way by a lot of pundits. Despite Star man Karim Benzema being absence due to an alleged sex scandal, France boasts of an array of stars from Hugo Lloris in goal, Paul Pogba in Midfield to Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud in attack. This could be France’s year.
Romania returns to the Euros after their group stage exit in 2008. The Romanians emerged from their qualifying group unbeaten (5 wins 5 draws). Only four teams qualified unbeaten, Romania, England, Austria and Italy.
Anghefromrdãnescu’s side have a few high profile players in its ranks. The likes of Watford Goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, Napoli defender Vlad Chiriches and Stuttgart playmaker Alexandra Maxim all play top level football and Romania’s hopes of qualifying from this group rests on these players.
Albania are the obvious minnows of group A. How they managed to make it out of a group that had Portugal, Denmark and Serbia to qualify for the Euros is still a surprise. Emerging from this group however in Albania’s first appearance at the Euros would be nothing short of a miracle.
The Albanians do not have “world class players” with their best player being the experienced Lorik Cana who has plied his trade in England, France and Italy.
As highly rated as the Swiss are, they are yet to make it out of the group stages in the Euros. They failed to qualify in 2012 and exited in the group stage as hosts in 2008.They would surely fancy their chances of going through this time around in a relatively easy group.
The Swiss team comprises of a lot of top players: Yann Sommer and Roman Burki in goal, Stephan Lichsteiner and Richardo Rodriguez in defence, Star player Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal new boy Granit Xhaka in midfield, Haris Seferović’s and teenage sensation Breel Embolo in attack. With this calibre of players, the Swiss should be able to scale the group stage hurdle at least.
Group B has England, Russia, Wales and Slovakia seems like a very tough group with every team having almost equal chances of qualifying.
Outside favourites to qualify from this group, England have flattered to deceive when it comes to major tournaments. The World cup in Brazil was the latest disappointment for an English team who should really be doing better. The three lions qualified for France comfortably though, winning all of their group games and keeping 8 clean sheets in the process.
England’s defence looks sorted out with Danny Rose, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Kyle Walker the obvious choices. Roy Hodgson raised a lot of eyebrows with his selections in midfield as Danny Drinkwater deserved to be called up ahead of Jack Wilshere who missed majority of the season through injury. The attack for England looks promising but how Hodgson would fit Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Skipper Wayne Rooney is something we would all have to wait and see.
Leonid Slutski’s side go into the Euros with a mixed run of form. After winning their last 4 games in qualifying to pip Sweden to an automatic qualifying spot, the Russians have lost 3 of their last 4 friendly games after that. The Russian team is a team built on experience and teamwork and with the experienced Igor Akinfeev between the sticks and Zenit duo of Artem Dzyuba and Aleksandr Kokorin, who both combined to score 11 goals during qualifying in attack, expect Russia to fight hard to qualify from this group.
Making their first appearance in the Euros, Wales are the underdogs in this group. They are by no means pushovers as they showed during qualifying. In Gareth Bale, Wales have a player who on a good day is capable of wonders with the ball at his feet. Wales Coach Chris Coleman would be hoping Bale comes into the Euros with the kind of form he had during the qualifying stage where he scored 7 out of the 11 goals scored by Wales.
Bale is undoubtedly the star man for the Welsh team but Swansea’s Ashley Williams and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey are also key players in this team and would no doubt play an important role if Wales are to qualify from this group.
Slovakia just like Wales would be making their first appearance at the European Championship. Jan Kozak’s side are on a good run of form and have not lost any of their 6 friendly games after qualifying by finishing second behind Spain
The Slovakian team have players with lots of experience. Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel is captain of the side and Napoli’s Marek Hamsik would clearly be their main player going into the tournament. Slovakia are not new to causing upsets as they knocked out then World Champions Italy in the group stage of the 2010 world cup. They would definitely be one to keep a close eye on.
Group C pits Favourites Germany and Poland in the same group after both teams faced each other in the qualifiers. Ukraine and ‘Newcomers’ Northern Ireland are the other teams in the group.
World champions Germany are clear favourites to win this group considering the calibre of players they possess. From Manuel Neuer in goal to Thomas Muller in attack, the team oozes class, but they can’t afford to be complacent. The Germans lost to Poland and Republic of Ireland during the qualifiers and should be wary this time. Joachim Low though, has a lot of young players coming through, the likes of Leroy Sane, Joshua Kimmich and Julian Brandt to mention a few. Germany would fancy their chances of not only qualifying from this group, but winning the Euros.
In Robert Lewandowski, Poland has one of the deadliest strikers in the world right now. Lewandowski was the highest goalscorer in the qualifiers with 13 goals and he just finished the Bundesliga season with 30 goals. If he is able to continue in such a brilliant run of form; who knows where Poland could get to. Poland is not all about Lewandowski though with the likes of Lukasz Piszczek, Jacob Blaszczykowski, Kanil Grosicki, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Arkadiusz Milik providing solid support.
Apart from four years ago when they appeared automatically as co-hosts, Ukraine have never made it to a European championship through qualifying. To get to this year’s Euros they needed a playoff against Slovenia. There’s no Andriy Shevchenko this time for Ukraine but they should not be underestimated. In Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kiev’s Andriy Yarmolenko, Ukraine have wingers which no defence would want to come up against.
The 30 year wait to qualify for a major championship is finally over. Northern Ireland surprised everyone by finishing top of their group despite being the lowest seeded team. Not much is expected from Martin O’Neil’s side in a very tough group for them but with the way they navigated their way out of a relatively tough qualifying group, fancy them pulling off an upset in France.
Spain and Croatia are in the same group once again as Turkey and Czech Republic fancy their chances in the ‘Group of Death’
Defending European champions Spain are currently experiencing some kind of a transitional phase with Xavi, Puyol, David Villa, and Xabi Alonso all out of the team. After the humiliating 5-1 loss to Netherlands, it was clear the Spaniards had been found out. The La Fura Roja have lost their aura but still remains one of the favourites for the title. They can become the first team to win the trophy three times in a row and that should be enough motivation for Vincente Del Bosque’s side.
Back in the Euros for the first time since 2008, Turkey faces a tough task of qualifying from this group. Turkey didn’t need a playoff to book their place in France; they qualified as the third best team. In Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Arda Turan and Yunus Malli, Turkey pose a real threat going forward and with the experienced Fatih Terim in charge, it would be interesting to see how far Turkey goes.
Tipped to finish second behind Spain, the Croats would be hoping for a better Euro outing than in 2012 where despite starting very well they crashed out in the group stage. They come into this one more experienced with Captain Darijo Srna, Lula Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandžukić forming the core of the team. Croatia could be a trap other teams would fall into if they are not careful.
The surprise team of group A in the qualifiers, the Czechs were not tipped by anyone to qualify from a group that included 2014 world cup semi-finalists Netherlands, Turkey and Iceland. With a team of dark horses coming to make a statement at the Euros, rule them out at your own peril!
Arguably the toughest group in the tournament, it’s safe to say Belgium are the unluckiest top seeded side, especially when you know you are about facing a 34 year old Zlatan, fresh from a tremendous season in Paris, we all know how the French love Zlatan, well, at least the Parisians do. Not to even talk about a rejuvenated Italian side and the Boys in Green with their passionate Irish fans. We have to say, this is a group bound to be mouth watering with entertainment come the start of the tournament.
Let us now take a close look at each team.
Ranked 2nd in the World according to FIFA, It’s only fair to say that the Red Devils are not called ‘Golden Generation’ for nothing, especially when you look at the star studded line up with individual brilliance. Marc Wilmot’s side will have another go at a major Tournament after a rather unconvincing World Cup when they fell short at the hands of Argentina in the Quarter Final. This is a team that have yet to impact on a major tournament the way they ought to, especially seeing that this is their first successful qualification since 1984.Surely one of the favourites to win the tournament, the World will be on the eyes of Marc Wilmots and his boys to see how yet again they get along and hopefully we see the brilliant fluid football we expect from them. This is where it started for Eden, France remembers him as a nimble dribbler, dazzling runner with an eye for goal. He grew up in Lille and helped them win the Ligue 1 where he was named the League’s best player for two consecutive seasons before joining Chelsea.
Nicknamed the Green Army, this is the third appearance of the Irish at the Euros. In their previous appearances they have failed to get past the group stages, which might soon be a statistic of the past with three teams potentially qualifying from a group. The Irish are ranked number 31 by FIFA in the current rankings. After Ireland’s qualification into the Euros happened in the expense of Bosnia due to the play off, it has become a customary way for the Boys in Green to get in or out of a major Tournament. The Irish team is known for their pragmatic approach and that certainly helped when they beat Germany in the Qualifiers that made them push for a play-off spot. Most will expect Ireland to bow to traditional hierarchy of going out in the Groups, but they have a vast experience in the team. With their fierce fans behind their back, anything is possible. “This man is Capable of terrorising any defence in the world”, Martin O’Neil insisted when describing Shane Long.
The blue and yellow as they are affectionate called by their fans will be making a fifth appearance at the Euros. Their first and best appearance was way back in 1992 where they went as far as the semis losing to eventual winners Germany. The Swedish haven’t been that glorious since then. Head coach Erik Hamren has been at the helm of affairs since 2009 a period that has seen the Swedish team with some highs and lows as they have made and missed some big tournaments.
Sweden narrowly made it to the Euros this summer by beating Denmark in the play-offs 4-3.They have a team capable upsetting the big teams in the group, especially how accustomed the players are building around their Captain Ibrahimovic, if everything works out well; they will be known more than just solid weights. Zlatan is their captain, leader and star man. It’s so hard not to pick him as the star man, considering how domineering and dazzling he is in front of goal. He had 59 goals in 49 appearances this season and also he was the second highest goal scorer in the Qualifiers, possibility that this might be his last, major tournament. Zlatan can singlehandedly take his team to the round of 16, and if all goes according to plan, who knows, the Eiffel Tower may be replaced with his statue.
The Gli Azzuri, are one time champions (1968) and were the losing finalist of the last Euros losing 4-0 to a rampant Spanish side, since then things have gone downhill for them. A dismal showing at the world cup in 2014 where they were dumped out in the group stages after losing two matches brought about a change of coaches but things haven’t improved too much. The team has laboured for goals, they still have a water tight defence but goals win you games. Italy is known for its tepid starts at major tournaments, but this Italy side is a rejuvenated side, they qualified for the tournament as Group H winners in the qualifiers.
Italy is one of the most decorated international teams, they have gone to the final 3 times and won the tournament in 1968, but last time the Azzuri were in the final, they were humiliated 4-1 by Spain.
If one thing should be a major problem, it should be the shortage of high class players in the side. Captain and leader Buffon had a 2015/16 season to remember, arguably his best season for Juventus. Breaking the clean sheet record and signing a contract extension for 2 years. This man doesn’t look like retiring anytime soon. A sole survivor from the 2006 World Cup winning team, Buffon will pass 160 caps for his country after making his debut in 1997. Injuries to important players such as Marchisio and Verratti means they miss the tournament and lack of fitness for De Rossi and Thiago Motta have head coach Antonio Conte sweating as the tournament draws closer.
Group F is made up of Portugal who are the seeded side, new comers Iceland, Austria who dropped only two points in the qualifiers and Hungary who have had a bright past in the Euros but that was fifty years ago.
Losing finalist in 2004 and semi finalist in 2012 where they lost to eventual winners Spain on penalties, the Portuguese have recent pedigree in this tournament. That it has also coincided with the rise of one Cristiano Ronaldo is really no surprise. The Portuguese are clear favourites to win the group and I struggle to see any worthy challengers.
A lot of talented players are present in the Portuguese team, not least triple Ballon D’or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. The likes of Andre Gomes, Renato Sanches, and William Carvalho will add flair and steel to the Portuguese midfield, while old heads Bruno Alves, Pepe and Jose Fonte will try to keep the back door locked, something they’ve been succeeding in doing recently.
Portugal qualified from their group in the last five euro championship and should do so once again. Portugal coach Fernando Santos has been in charge for over 2 years and has slowly built a solid team who are hard to breakdown and clinical upfront. Expect to see a few clean sheets from the Portuguese going forward.
A country of just over 300 hundred thousand people, Iceland shocked a lot of people in qualifying for the Euros and they did so winning home and away against the Netherlands, and finishing ahead of Turkey too. They had a very strong home record and fully deserve their place in the Euros. In that time they also managed to climb over 40 places to occupy number 35 in the world according to FIFA.
A very large percentage of the Icelandic team ply their trade in the big leagues, the most famous name in the squad would be Eidur Gudjhonsen who played for a number of years in Chelsea before moving to Barcelona. These days, He is a 37 year old veteran still banging in the goals in Molde. Not too far behind would be Gylfi Sigurdsson the main man of Swansea. They have capable goal scorers in Finnbogason and Bodvarsson both of who ply their trade in the Bundesliga.
The Icelandic team were mostly underrated during qualifiers and taught a few teams some lessons in respecting your opponent. They have some in and around the squad but I don’t think it would be enough to get out of a tough looking group except maybe they end up as a third best finisher.
This is only Austria’s second appearance at a European championship, the last being in 2008 where they were joint host and left in the group stages. This time around they arrived in style, not losing a single qualifier drawing one game and winning nine. Considering their group contained Sweden and Russia, which was quite a feat. Austria is currently ranked number 11 by FIFA.
The Austrians have a strong core and have shown they are no pushovers. David Alaba, the Bayern defender is one of the stand out players of the team. Marko Arnautovic – the Austrian Zlatan – is another. Captain Christian Fuchs will be looking to lead his team into the next round. Head coach Marcel Koller has been at the helm since 2011, in that time he has taken the Austrians from minnows to a strong attacking team.
The Austrians should have too much for the others in the group bar Portugal. I’d go as far as suggesting it would be a straight shootout between both teams for top spot. The Austrians are a balanced team who have grown together for the past three years and know each other very well.
The Hungarians arrive at their first tournament in almost 50 years. Ranked number 18 by FIFA, the Hungarians qualified for the Euros in France by beating Norway over two legs. German Head coach Bernd Stock has been in charge of the team for less than a year but was able to steer the team into the Euros.
A majority of the Hungarian squad ply their trade in the Hungarian first division, the most notable name in the squad is Zoltan Gera who played for Westbromich Albion and Fulham, he is well into his thirties now but his experience will be incredibly useful for this team.
The Hungarians are tough team to breakdown and know themselves well. Head coach Bernd Stock is known to be a fiery character and will do his best to motivate his team to cause an upset. I cannot see the Hungarians doing too much as being in the tournament is already an accomplishment in itself for Hungary.
Article by: Eric Ubong, @EricUbong and Ekpe-Iko Hodovai, @hodohvy